Jensen: No pecking order on this St. Joe's team

SPOKANE, Wash. - The St Joseph's Hawks practiced Thursday afternoon in "Bigfoot Country," at Spokane Community College. (There's an actual stuffed rendering of Bigfoot out in the lobby.) An administrator wanted to put up Do Not Disturb signs outside the gym.

"Don't bother," Hawks coach Phil Martelli told her, knowing there would be more noise going out the door than coming in.

Preparing for Friday night's NCAA West Regional first-round matchup with Cincinnati, loud basketball talk filled the little gym, even during stretching.

Talk doesn't get you a W, but the day the Hawks won the Atlantic Ten title, Martelli said he had told his team in August that they were the best team in the Atlantic Ten - "as a team. Now, whether or not that translated to basketball, I didn't know."

What made Martelli say that? These 27-7 Hawks were mostly the same guys who were 13-18 last season.

"It was the noise," Martelli said. "Every time I was around them, there was noise. . . . Whether it was laughter, talk about how to play. The noise. And it's continued all year."

Here is one play that doesn't show up on the box score and kind of indicates the lack of a Hawks hierarchy: Early in the season, Isaiah Miles, who already had established himself as a star - maybe the biggest reason for the upturn on the court - turned his ankle and limped near the St. Joe's bench as the play went on down at the other end.

One of the Hawks walk-ons yelled at Miles to get downcourt. Miles yelled back that he had sprained his ankle. The walk-on yelled something like, "So what? Get downcourt."

Martelli didn't hear any of that. But when the conversation was relayed to him by a staffer, Martelli loved it.

"That's different than a lot of teams in the country and a lot of teams I've been on," said Hawks junior Brendan Casper, fingering sophomore Kyle Thompson out of St. Joseph's Prep as the fiery bench guy. "It's not like anyone is treated differently on this team.

"It's the closest team I've ever been on. Every single guy hangs out with each other. . . . I think it's why we've won, a part no one talks about. On some teams, a guy speaks up, doesn't play much, they're like, 'Don't tell me what to do.' We've all been on those teams. Here, it's just one flat level."

Even at practice, Casper said, the hierarchy is a flat line.

"I probably fought with 'Dre once a week in practice this year," said Casper, a walk-on who was given a scholarship this season, of star DeAndre' Bembry. "It's a constant battle, and it doesn't matter if it's the last player on the bench or the last rotation guy or DeAndre', we all treat each other the same."

This kind of talk has been echoed by all sorts of Hawks players in virtually every interview since early in the season, when it wasn't yet obvious St. Joe's would have this kind of season.

Freshman Lamarr "Fresh" Kimble said late in the season the atmosphere was one reason he picked the Hawks: "Going hard but not at each other. It's all team-oriented guys."

Starting point guard Shavar Newkirk added that the communication within the group is a big part of it. "We have a group text. We communicate on the group text. It's all fun and games, then we talk about serious stuff."

"I don't know if we have anything printable," senior Aaron Brown said of those group texts.

The whole atmosphere, a lot of it is attributed to Bembry, a junior but a second-year captain, the centerpiece of the whole thing.

"In practice, he respects every player like they're Isaiah," Casper said.

Coming off a 13-win season, Martelli talked about how it is human nature when you're losing to point out the deficiencies of others. When that didn't happen, "I give a lot of credit to DeAndre'. He kind of said, 'No, no, no, no. We're not going that way.' "

Watching Thursday's workout from the side, Phil Martelli's father looked at the whole thing and simply said, "They like each other."